A lone passenger makes her way into the main TSA checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Friday May 15, 2020. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta airport again world’s busiest in 2019 — then travel plummeted

Hartsfield-Jackson International again handled more passengers than any other airport in the world in 2019 — but this year is bringing dramatic shifts as travel plummets.

With 110.5 million passengers last year, the Atlanta airport retained its No. 1 spot in a ranking by Airports Council International. In the No. 2 spot was Beijing Capital International Airport with 100 million passengers, followed by Los Angeles International, Dubai and Tokyo.

While Atlanta handled the most passengers, Chicago O’Hare again handled the most flights. And the busiest airport measured by air cargo traffic last year was Hong Kong, followed by Memphis.

The report also showed how much things have changed this year. In the first three months of 2020, passenger traffic was already down 18.2% at Hartsfield-Jackson compared with the same period in 2019. By April, Delta said it was cutting flights 85%.

Around the world, the industry “is now in survival mode, crippled by the loss of passenger traffic and revenues,” Airports Council International director general Angela Gittens, who is a former Atlanta airport manager, said in a written statement.

The sharp drop in travel is affecting airport contractors and workers. Atlanta-based Concessions International just a few months ago was operating more than 40 restaurants in 10 airports with about 950 employees.

Now it operates three restaurants in two airports with about 50 employees, according to Michael Russell, CEO of parent company H.J. Russell & Co. At Hartsfield-Jackson, Concessions International closed all its locations and laid off nearly 300 workers due to the closure of Concourse B, which was among the concourses temporarily shuttered.

Late last month, Atlanta airport general manager John Selden said if the airport recovered to 50% of its normal traffic by this time next year, “we would be in a good place.” However, “Without a vaccine… that prediction is probably not even going to happen.”

On Tuesday, Hartsfield-Jackson issued a statement saying COVID-19 has had “an undeniable impact on travel,” but added: “We continue to welcome passengers with a number of social distancing and safety measures and are looking forward to, once again, being the busiest and most efficient airport on the globe.”

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